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Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Friend Wants to Know: Why Won't I Shut Up and Get with the Program?

Two friends contacted me recently, telling me something I thought strange. Both felt the need to tell me Trump was lying to me about the 2020 election. 
When the second friend asked me this question, I told him it made me wonder that, if he thought that I believe what politicians tell me, does he believe what politicians tell him? No, no, he assured me: he, too, believes all politicians, naturally, are cheats and liars; but it is only that Trump's lies about the election, and about Covid, are so unique.
The courts and the experts have spoken, after all. My friend wants to know, and asks very politely (more politely than this): why don't I shut up and get with the program?

I wrote him this response, slightly edited:  

I had asked you why you thought I needed to hear that Trump is lying to me. As you put it: "I felt that I owed it to you to tell you that he has lied to you." I mentioned another friend who felt the same compunction. His words were: "First, you are being conned, by a a guy who has been conning for years....Donald Trump." I cannot imagine how two people, both highly intelligent, got the idea that I needed to hear that a politician lies. I further cannot imagine how these two people came to assume that I, or any person, could be set straight by announcing their own conclusions on political matters. Perhaps they think that, if I accept a politician's lines uncritically, I might accept theirs? I do not know.  

The reason I focus on this is because I am concerned about our divide as a country. And what my two friends' reactions here suggest to me is that they think we are divided because we don't accept the same grubby political conclusions as each other. I do not think that is it at all. Here is what I think our problem is: I think our problem is: we are not even trying to understand each other

The 2020 election is a good example. Forgive me, but I am going to put you in the docket here. You tell me there is "no evidence of widespread voter Fraud here." You also said:
"If the election was a fraud, then that evidence would have come out. Correct me if I am wrong, but if you had that evidence, then I think you would have presented it, at least on your blog. I do not get that, you understand the rules of evidence. You know there is no evidence of widespread voter Fraud. He just lost the election. This happens every 4 years." 
There are three reasons I think you are going about this the wrong way. And I think these reasons may be gathered under the heading that your formulation is not directed at genuine understanding or discourse. Instead, you are telling me there is no discussion to be had here. You are telling me – very politely, of course – to shut up and get with the program. 

The first reason why I think your formulation is not conducive to an open discussion is because it is the formulation of a mere lawyer. There is a time and a place for making lawyerly arguments. But discussion between lawyers is not the same kind of discussion that may be had between philosophers, or between friends. The job of a lawyer is to get the other side's case thrown out. On technicalities, if at all possible. So that the other argument does not even get an airing. But friends and philosophers do not argue like that. They do not look for truth in court rulings. They do not take, for example, an order granting a motion to dismiss a complaint, as the foundation for truth claims about the world. 

Our civic discourse has taken way too much of a cue from lawyers, who just want to spike the football and drop the mike after every argument. Every sentence seems to end, "case closed." I am not disparaging lawyers here, but they are not the most charitable and collegial lot. But more to the point, their approach simply has limited application. If we have any care for understanding one another, we need a different toolkit. 

The second reason why I bristled at your formulation is because it lacked self-awareness. Many of the rising stars in your party continued for years – and to this day as far as I am aware – to talk of Stacey Abrams as the rightful governor of Georgia but for Georgia's election fraud. She still has not conceded that race. And Abrams' political stock continues to rise. I think Abrams is a nasty provocateur. I probably think of her about what you think of Trump. I do not know if you agree that Abrams rightfully ought to be the Georgia governor. But even if you did I don't think I would feel the need to insist on telling you that you only believed that because "Abrams is lying to you." In fact, there is fraud every election. Our country is the laughingstock of the democratic world because of the keystone-cops manner in which we run our elections. So I extend to every American voter disappointed in the outcome of a close election the privilege of harboring suspicion. The grim reality is that, in close elections, the legal outcome is all we have. I can imagine your disappointment and frustration with Bush v. Gore: the high Court has spoken, the matter is at an end. Was that any solace? I suspect the opposite. Epictetus said: Blows by nature are not intolerable to a man; the rational he can always bear – but to the rational creature that which is against reason is alone past bearing. 
Your political opponents are feeling rather like that. Against their valid suspicions, they get official denunciations, without reason, and even against reason. If every election ended in a Bush v. Gore, our experiment in democracy would not last a lifetime. 

A third reason I felt your formulation was a bit needling is because of the tendentious mantra, "no evidence." Every plaintiff's lawyer never tires of saying "overwhelming evidence," and every defense lawyer never tires of saying "no evidence." This is just sales puff that judges and appellate lawyers learn to simply ignore. Of course there is evidence of election fraud. The insertion of the modifier "widespread" – to make the claim "no evidence of widespread election fraud" – is somewhat mischievous, because who is to say what "widespread" is? And even the word "fraud" is unfortunate, because it suggests to the mind some sort of master plan, as if there was a single fraud, rather than a large collection of sloppy, incompetent, ignorant, partisan actors, in addition to, perhaps, some malevolent ones. Kind of how all the political and military experts in Britain assumed their Fortress Singapore had a wall, and propagated that assumption through an echo chamber, until the Japanese marched right into the Fortress from Malaya. A false assumption, uncritically shared, ended the British Empire in Asia. 

To take just one example, the challenged Pennsylvania mail-in ballots in 2018 were rejected at a rate over 4%, and in heavy Democratic counties, up to 8%. But in this election, with millions of first-time mail-in voters sending in ballots, and with review or contest of the signatures, addresses, and dates of the ballots during the canvassing disallowed for the first time in that state's history, less than 0.28% were rejected. This is 1/16th the rate of the 2018 election. Biden's PA victory, at a margin of 80,000 votes, depended on his heavily lopsided mail-in votes, at 2 million versus Trump's 600,000. Had the 2020 mail-in ballots been rejected at rates of the 2018 election, Biden's PA victory would have slipped away. 

I exercise my privilege to reserve judgment about the intent or any master plan behind what happened in this case. But these facts are enough to make me distrustful of the outcome. And where there is no offer (that I have found) of any explanation for suspicious circumstances like these, then empty declarations of "no evidence" tend only to cause distrust to harden. 

I am going to leave alone the claims about Covid for now. I have a lot of opinions about that (as many do), but I think it really off the mark to blame Trump for it. Following your spirit of trying to check for my own "blinders," I try to imagine if Obama (whom I find to be arrogant and petulant and endlessly self-serving, as I'm sure you do Trump) had said what Trump said about downplaying it, I would have regarded that as some political paydirt, albeit minor. But I did not hang Obama on everything he said. Whoever is at the helm when something like this happens, keeping calm and order and not stoking fear is the mark of statesmanship. I think I would have said the same if a Democrat had said what Trump said. 

And to take a concrete case, I still hesitate to judge de Blasio, whom I mostly despise, too harshly for delaying lockdown measures in NYC. There was just not enough information at that time, a lockdown is a highly disruptive measure, and there was little good evidence it would do much to help (there still isn't). 

In fact, Covid really demonstrated a couple of claims against Trump to be empty. Even though critics accused Trump of being a "fascist" and a "tyrant," Trump chose not to stoke fear, and Trump chose not to enlarge his power, even though Covid provided a very nice way for him to do both. For that, he is called a murderer. (And he is still called a "fascist." Go figure.) Democratic state governors did the exact opposite: they stoked fear (and continue to stoke fear), and they usurped power (and many of them still wield it, with no end in sight). For that, they are hailed by the media as great leaders. Cuomo was awarded a fucking Emmy! For Christ's sake. It's the press laughing along with George W. Bush all over again: "Those weapons of mass destruction got to be 'round here somewhere!" 

I guess I didn't really leave the Covid claims alone. I am just so fed up with the chummy relationship between the media and the big-corpo-statists. 

In your point about the media, I appreciate your acknowledgment that it engages in propaganda. I confess I don't exactly understand your point about Trump here. Yes, his relationship with the media is symbiotic, they fuel each other. It is a problem. But Trump was only ever going to be in office 4 or 8 years. You point to Trump's relatively short-term role in our media-propaganda problem as having greater significance than the billionaire-media's permanent control over who gets to speak and what we can say. That does not compute. 
[Christopher Lasch argued the media removed itself from the "public discourse" game many decades ago, serving only to represent entrenched interests and elite prerogatives. Ordinary Americans are not meant to see in the media anything that resembles their own views; it is intended they be "brought along" to the "correct" views. The media tells its audiences, in effect, to shut up, and get with the program. "Enemy of the people" is a crude and incendiary summation of Lasch's thesis, but not far from the mark.]

I would urge you to follow Glenn Greenwald, and Matt Taibbi. Even Andrew Sullivan. None of them are fans of Trump by a long shot. But they also recognize our public discourse had crumbled even before Trump. 

When the people cannot see themselves in respectable politicians, they will turn to unrespectable ones. That is how we got Trump. When people cannot hear themselves in the voices allowed to participate in public discourse, they will turn to disallowed ones. There are not enough Americans who are willing to shut up and get with the program.

Now I will hazard a guess. Trump is so villainous because in him we can see reflected the ruins of our public discourse, something that we all agree is tragic and that must be rectified. So we assume that by removing Trump, we are saving ourselves. But that is not so. Trump only reflects our ruined discourse – he did not ruin it. Smashing a mirror does nothing to the ruins that are reflected in it. 

If my metaphor is correct and our discourse is in ruins, then it cannot be restored by subtraction. Pointing out "lies" is worse than pointless, it is destructive: it does nothing to advance the cause of truth, and it alienates your interlocutor. What we need are not "fact checkers" but philosophers, those who will share in the search for truth. 



Tom Van Dyke said...

"Our civic discourse has taken way too much of a cue from lawyers, who just want to spike the football and drop the mike after every argument. Every sentence seems to end, "case closed."

Yes, we watch way too much Law & Order, where the search for truth is adversarial, rather than open Plato's Socratic dialogues, where the search for truth is co-operative, and the burden of proof is shared by all.

Tim Kowal said...

The term "civil discourse" is worthy of reflection. The ones most insistent upon civility seem to regard discourse as more or less expendable.